December 1993

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How We

Rediscovered Canada

in 1928


Robert F. McNamara

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV

Part III

Private residences in the Province of Quebec, we three travelers noticed, had unique characteristics. The farm houses, for instance, whether built of wood or stone, were whitewashed and had shingled gable roofs.

Many of these farm residences displayed little roadside signs bearing the legend, Tapis à vendre. They were advertising home-crafted hooked rugs. In some cases, the family had pinned up some colorful samples on a clothesline in the front yard.

I decided to buy one of these scatter rugs as a gift for my mother. Shopping for it, furthermore, might give me my chance to strike up a conversation in French. So we parked in front of one house that advertised the tapis. When I knocked on the front door a sweet little elderly lady opened it.

"Have you rugs for sale?" I asked in English. Obviously she didn't understand me. I therefore tried "Plan B." In carefully rehearsed French, I asked, "Avez-vous des tapis à vendre?" "Mais oui," she replied with a broad smile. She invited us in and laid out before us a fine selection. I don't think we had any further verbal communication. One can easily conduct business, we discovered, with the sign language of a pointed finger and a five-dollar bill. Two of us bought attractive throw rugs, which our saleslady wrapped in French-language newspapers. Off we went, pleased as Punch. We had not only made a good purchase; we had actually carried on a conversation, however brief, in elementary French.

Although we reached Quebec City in the afternoon, we opted to push on at once to nearby Ste. Anne de Beauprd. Here stands by the famous shrine honoring St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary. On the very day in 1658 when the hardy "inhabitants" laid the foundations of the original church, a miraculous cure was reported. Ever since then, countless Canadian and American pilgrims have flocked to Beaupré seeking the inter-cession of "Good St. Anne." Here, as at St. Joseph's shrine in Montreal, a forest of canes and crutches left by cured invalids testifies to the church's repute as a place of healing. In the year of our arrival the present great basilica was still under construction. Another devotional sight we took in was the vast cycloramic painting of the passion and death of Christ.

Back then to Quebec City, with an overnight on its outskirts. On July 9 we bought tickets for a sightseeing tour of the upper and lower cities. The bus set out from the Chateau Frontenac, that vast and plush hotel that crowns the heights. There were stop-offs at several churches and historic buildings. Then we drove through the residential district and paid a visit to the lofty military meadow, the Plains of Abraham. This city of Quebec, we concluded, was definitely Gallic and proud of its French connection. But the France held dear by the Quebecois was not that of the irreverent French Revolution; it was that of "His Most Christian Majesty" Louis XIV, who had done so much to establish Canada in the 17th century.

As Americans we found the Plains of Abraham doubly interesting.

It was there, in the first place, that Great Britain, in 1759, had won the decisive victory of America's "French and Indian War."

Our history teacher at C.F.A., Miss Leta M. Gilbert, had impressed on us the importance of this stirring battle between the British forces of General James Wolfe and the French forces of the Marquis de Montcalm. It had deeply affected the future of Britain, Canada, and the United States. The second American association with this high prairie was more recent. It concerned the death of a great American aviator, Floyd Bennett.

Bennett was a fine person and an outstanding naval aviator. He had won international acclaim in May 1926 when he piloted Commander Richard E. Byrd on the first recorded flight over the North Pole. Byrd had then chosen him to be second-in-command of a flight over the South Pole projected for 1929.

Meanwhile, Floyd had accepted a bid to fly from Detroit to Newfoundland accompanied by Bernt Balchen, another aviator engaged by Byrd for the South Pole effort. At takeoff on April 20, 1928, both men had severe colds. En route, Bennett's condition became serious, so they made an emergency landing near Quebec and he was rushed off to the Jeffrey Hale Hospital. The physicians pronounced him gravely ill, and his wife and Commander Byrd were summoned to the bedside.

When this sad news was flashed back to the United States, another great American aviator resolved to do something about it. Charles A. Lindbergh, famous for his pioneer solo flight in 1927 from Long Island to Paris, volunteered to pick up some serum at New York's Rockefeller Institute and fly it to Quebec. Plowing through a blinding snowstorm at personal risk, Lindbergh finally landed on the Plains of Abraham. Despite his generosity, the mission was futile. Bennett died on April 25, 1928.

As we stood on the old battlefield just a few weeks later, we may not have known all the details of the episode. But we did have long thoughts about this drama that had involved three notable American explorers. Fortunately, the United States of the 1920s still permitted its youth to venerate the nation's heroes. Muckraking media and psychobiographers had not yet declared war on our role models.

© 1993, Robert F. McNamara
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Index to articles by Robert F. McNamara
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